Zuckerberg contacts Obama: Social media might give us all a voice. But it isn’t worth much if no one is listening

Unless you happen to be Patrick Stewart, the PM’s not likely to read your tweet


The US President has 42 million Twitter followers, 39 million “likes” on Facebook and a responsibility to represent the interests of 314 million Americans – but how many of them can just pick up the phone and call Barry for a chat? Mark Zuckerberg is one. On Thursday, in a public post, the 29-year-old Facebook founder wrote of his concern over the threat the US government poses to internet security. Unlike most who share these concerns, Zuckerberg has a means of communicating them. “I’ve called President Obama to express my frustration,” he reassured us.

David Cameron would also like us to know that he has the President on speed dial, judging by the much-mocked “phone selfie” he tweeted last week. For the benefit of those who missed the mick-taking from Twitter users (including actor Patrick Stewart and comedian Rob Delaney), the original picture showed the Prime Minister on the phone with a theatrically sombre facial expression. The accompanying text read: “I’ve been speaking to @BarackObama about the situation in Ukraine. We are united in condemnation of Russia’s actions.”

At least Cameron or, more accurately, the team of junior spin doctors who run his Twitter account, found the subsequent meme amusing. A few days later, @DavidCameron followed up by tweeting Patrick Stewart a picture of the PM with Bill Clinton. “Talking to another US President, this time face to face, not on the phone,” it said, thus demonstrating that the point had been entirely missed. It wasn’t the phone people found risible, it was Cameron’s try-hard attempt to convey a statesmanlike ease.

Still, the phone selfie mimicry must have made a pleasant change from the usual volley of badly spelt obscenities which ping back at any tweet from the PM’s office. Or, indeed, any social media remark made by any high-profile individual. In Oh Do Shut Up, Dear!, Mary Beard’s programme on the public voice of women, scheduled for broadcast on BBC Four, the classics professor makes, in passing, an interesting suggestion. We all know that women are subject to online verbal abuse, but perhaps misogyny is merely the form. Perhaps the root cause is an increasing frustration with the limits of social media.

People once believed – and were encouraged to do so – that being able to tweet their elected representative directly, to join a Facebook group or to sign an online petition would give them a louder voice in our democracy. Now we know that speaking up and being heard are two different things. Unless you happen to be the bloke who said “Make it so” with such authority on Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Prime Minister is unlikely even to read your tweet, never mind to act on it.

Social media does have the potential to aid grassroots democracy, but more often it simply acts as a bigger podium for the powerful few, while everyone else is just there to pad out the audience numbers. Note that when powerful men like Cameron or Zuckerberg want to be heard, they may turn to social media to boast about their influence, but actually to exercise said influence? That requires a telephone. The message, whatever the medium, is clear: when I speak, important people listen.

As for the man on the other end of the line, this week President Obama took to his own online podium, a webisode of the satirical talk show Between Two Ferns. He wanted to encourage those elusive millennials to sign up for affordable healthcare, but there was also a secondary message to broadcast to citizens. When the host, comedian Zach Galifianakis said he was “off the grid” for fear that the government would be checking up on him, Obama took the opportunity to set him straight: “First of all, Zach, no one’s interested in your texts.”

This is the ego-bruising news that governments have been trying, gently, to break to us for some time, and despite many very legitimate concerns about the extent of state surveillance, it still rings true. The real horror of digital life is not that all your thoughts and opinions are out there, online for governments to observe and act on. It’s that they’re out there, online and, for the most part, no one’s interested.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager - Commercial Training

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The business development manage...

The Richmond Fellowship Scotland: Executive Director

£66,192 per annum including car allowance of £5,700): The Richmond Fellowship ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Recruitment Genius: Office Junior

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
George Osborne walks down the stairs from a submarine during a visit to the Royal Navy's submarine base at Faslane on August 31, 2015 in Faslane Scotland  

Sorry George Osborne, but it's Trident that makes us less safe, not Jeremy Corbyn

Kate Hudson
Fighters from Isis parading in Raqqa, northern Syria, where the ‘Islamic State’ has its capital; Iranian-backed Shia militia are already fighting the group on the ground in Iran  

Heartlessness towards refugees is the lifeblood of jihadist groups like Isis

Charlie Winter
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent